Citation:

Clean Air Council v. Sunoco Pipeline L.P., 2018 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 145 (April 30, 2018)

Summary:
The Environmental Rights Amendment does not impose duties or obligations on private parties. The Eminent Domain Code is the exclusive procedure for challenging an entity’s condemnation power and public utility status.
Case Details:

Plaintiffs challenged the construction of Defendant’s pipeline. Plaintiffs brought several claims to try to stop Defendant, which was a public utility corporation, from exercising the power of eminent domain to construct the pipeline.  Those claims included a challenge to Defendant’s public utility status and various constitutional claims, including an Environmental Rights Amendment (ERA) claim, takings claims, and procedural due process claims.

Regarding the ERA claim, the Plaintiffs alleged Defendant violated its fiduciary duties as a trustee under the ERA by “failing to consider the environmental impacts of the Project before moving forward.” Plaintiffs claimed that Defendant violated the ERA in choosing to proceed with the project. Plaintiffs alleged that Defendant was exercising the powers of the Commonwealth as a public utility. Defendant contended that the ERA claim should fail because Defendant, a private company with public utility status, is not part of the Commonwealth and, therefore, has no obligations under the ERA. Defendant also argued that the Plaintiffs’ ERA claim is a collateral attack on the decisions made by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) approvals of the project.

The Commonwealth Court noted that the ERA does two things: (1) it limits the power of the state to act in derogation of protected environmental interests; and (2) it obligates the Commonwealth to act as a trustee of Pennsylvania’s public natural resources. The ERA does not impose duties or obligations on private parties, including public utility corporations; only the Commonwealth can be charged with a duty under the ERA. The Court ultimately deferred the decision on the issue of whether Defendant is a public utility exercising the powers of the Commonwealth for a subsequent proceeding. However, the Court determined the Plaintiff’s ERA claim was not a collateral attack on the PUC or DEP’s regulatory approvals.

The Court found each of the Plaintiffs’ remaining claims must fail. The takings claims, due process claims, and challenges to Defendant’s public utility status were all challenges to Defendant’s power and right to condemn property by Eminent Domain. All claims challenging these rights must be brought as preliminary objections under the Eminent Domain Code, which is the exclusive procedure for challenging an entity’s condemnation power under the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions.

Date of Decision: 4/30/18

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